By Jennifer LeeVan
The 11-year-old Daniel Smokler hoisted his oversized duffle bag from the trunk, grabbed his worn down hockey stick, and walked several steps towards the rink door. His father rolled down the window and made a subtle gesture which might have been mistaken for smoothing his hair. The boy turned abruptly, rushed back to the car, opened the backseat door, and tucked his yarmulke into the seat pocket before progressing into the stadium for pee-wee practice. The hiding of his small head covering had become as much of a routine as putting on his socks, and forgetting to remove it would feel as awkward as lacing up his skates around bare feet. Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Smokler led two separate lives. His father reminded him every day before hockey practice to be discreet regarding his religion, to prevent being singled-out. Smokler never really understood, but did as he was told. Consistent with the messages he’d been receiving, the young teen began to steer away from his Jewish practices. He no longer advertised his faith publicly, and daily prayer fell out of his routine.
“Freed” from his previous bond to Judaism, Smokler, the dreadlock-headed 16 year old, embarked on a bohemian lifestyle. He decided that he would prefer to live in a homemade tepee in his backyard. For six months he endured cold Michigan days and nights in a tent against the will of his parents.
Whereas the upheaval of lifestyle and resulting turmoil at home created a sense of crisis, there was one relationship that became an unexpected source of stability in young Smokler’s life. Though Smokler had distanced himself from religious practices, he continued to meet with the Rabbi who had been his tutor since age 10, Rabbi Joshua Laufer. Together they tackled torah passages and religious texts. Smokler recalls that the rabbi was supportive of his decision to live in a ‘modern way’ despite the rabbi, himself, being a traditionalist. By continuing to engage the young student in discussion of sacred texts, and actively elicit his perspective, Laufer instilled within Smokler not only the foundations for understanding the Torah, but also a love for teaching.
Seven years after Smokler began studying with Laufer, Laufer made “Aliyah,” a religious “ascent” and commitment to live in the land of Israel. Distraught, Laufer’s former students begged Smokler, their 17-year-old colleague, to continue their education in Torah. Thus began Smokler’s journey from student to teacher.
Smokler received a bachelor of arts from Yale University, and worked for several years organizing Yale employees, hotel workers, and writers.
Now a graduate student at New York University, preparing to receive a PhD in Education and Jewish Studies, Rabbi Daniel Smokler, known as Rabbi Dan, has acquired a reputation for bring innovative ideas to the realm of Jewish education of young adults. Among his innovations at NYU is a 10-week fellowship for students who didn’t have a formal Jewish upbringing. Smokler says, “My goal is that when they leave they will have a group of friends, a mentor, and will feel like part of this community.”
Smokler is young, playful, and even follows sports. Whereas Traditionalist rabbis insist on abiding strictly by the text of the Torah, Smokler and other Modernist rabbis approach the Torah with a contemporary outlook and encourage their community to interpret the text in a manner that both acknowledges the history of the religion and also acknowledges an opportunity for personalization of the text.
Unlike most Traditionalist Orthodox Rabbis, Smokler does not believe in evangelism. “I don’t believe in trying to convince people of the ‘good news,’ the good news being that there is a halakhah (which refers to the 613 laws God gave to the Jewish people at Sinai), and that if I can just convince you of that, that you’ll begin to treat your life accordingly by becoming an Orthodox Jew.” He rejects that approach for two reasons. The first is that it he believes it simply doesn’t work. “Even if I did want everyone to become an orthodox Jew, which I don’t, it’s not possible to convince large numbers of people whether it’s through setting up yeshivas in Israel or setting up Chabad houses around the world.”
The second reason involves giving credence to the choices available to the modern Jew and the necessity for a Jew to actively choose Judaism as a path for their relationship with the religion to be an effective one. Rabbi Smokler explains, “In the modern arena every Jew is free- whether we like it or not- people are free to live their life as the want to. They can make their own kind of meaning. They can redefine themselves and have tremendous social mobility.” Unlike previous eras, in which participating in your religious community was a default, and opting out was an active decision, modern Jews must make the choice to join the community. In describing the process, Rabbi Smkoler says, “I want that process of opting into it to be one that’s full of integrity and respect for the person, and to be a process where people feel that they’re adding meaning to their life, and that they’re taking on a covenant in a serious way,” Though Smokler is convinced that Judaism is the right path for him, he wants others to reach this conclusion on their own terms.
At 30, Smokler became the educational director of a program he designed, Hillel International’s $10.7 million Senior Jewish Educators Initiative. Working out of New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life, he meets one-on-one with students, teaches Torah to a wide range of Jewish affinity groups, and mentors Hillel educators around the country. When asked about his vision for the program, Smokler responds “I see through learning that I enjoy sitting around in a circle and studying ancient texts and hearing what people think about them and getting to understand our life stories and try to understand the tradition. I’m basically just looking for an environment that will allow me to do that with greater degrees of depth and seriousness, and with students who are really seeking something- so that’s always a challenge.”
Student’s embrace his teaching style, and appreciate the safe space he creates for open discourse. Smokler hand-selects passages that he feels apply to the specific interest group involved and then listens as students share the ways in which the text is applicable to their personal narrative. Steven Fifke gets at the essence of the students’ reaction to this special educator when he states, “Rabbi Dan inspires his students to find their own unique connection to the Jewish religion. He never forces or coerces anyone into doing something they don’t want to do, just genuinely presents his own beliefs and hopes that it has a positive affect on his students’ being.”
One of Smokler’s greatest supporters is his wife, Erin Leib Smokler who is a doctoral candidate and Jewish educator. Although they were only recently married in 2008, they have been life long learning partners and friends. Smoker articulates that Erin had her own path independent of him, but that they have always learned together, and they’ve always had the same set of interests, generally, but they’ve approached different texts.
“Our interests have always been a search for a second naïveté, meaning once you’ve had religious passion, and you feel really strongly about the experience of God and piety and religious community and Torah, then you begin to encounter things that challenge that, whether it’s critical thinking, pluralistic society, different forms of Judaism, otherness, disappointment from your leaders, suffering, the absence of God, anything that challenges the rosy, childhood picture of religion- once you encounter those things, and you take it seriously and you experience a kind of heartbreak, you begin to try and find a way to live on the other side, and that’s what you call a second naïveté. To be naïve again and wide eyed, but not like a fundamentalist, not to white wash over the challenges and the difference you come across, so you begin to search for the second naïveté.”
Having experienced this collective struggle to find meaning, Rabbi Smokler has created a venue for students to engage in a similar struggle in his classroom and provide support for each other on the journey. The overwhelmingly positive response to this process has caused an upheaval of the accepted wisdom that Jewish young adults require social events to become engaged in Judaism and that addressing religious texts will frighten them away. His program is poised to expand to several more campuses in the coming years.